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Burma, 1993


On our last weekend in Burma, we made the pilgrimage to Kyaitio, a famous pagoda perched precariously at the top of a 1000 meter high mountain, some 150 kilometers east of Rangoon. Though Kyaitio was often pictured in tourist brochures and posters, it had been off- limits to foreign visitors for years, due to its proximity to areas along the Thai border controlled by the Karen National Army. We were among the first tourists permitted to make the climb since the government had determined that there was indeed, little risk of suffering the embarrassment of a terrorist attack in the presence of visitors. 

"It is truly a miracle," Win Naing had told us before we left. "You just can't explain why it doesn't fall off the mountain." Supposedly, the boulder on which the pagoda had been built was secured by one of the hairs of the Buddha.

My brother, an American diplomat, had arranged for the use of an embassy vehicle for the journey -- something with sufficiently high clearance to successfully negotiate the cavernous ruts he was anticipating on the road. So early on a Saturday morning, Doug and his wife Connie -- also a diplomat, and Mathisca and I climbed into a Chevy van that might well have accomodated twenty-five or thirty locals (plus a load of cargo), and we set off. The four hour trip was, sure enough, bumpy at times, but the concerns of my brother were unfounded. The last time I was in New York, I had experienced worse. 

At the base of the mountain, there was a sort of carnival atmosphere characteristic of nearly all Burmese Buddhist shrines -- long rows of straw, bamboo, or wooden shacks where vendors sold drinks, food, various religious trinkets, modern and traditional medicines, and such essential hiking paraphernalia as walking sticks and new flipflops.

There was a constant racket of scratchy music and the drone of pitchmen imploring the pilgrims to sample their wares or, on a somewhat higher plane, to purchase some merit for the future life by contributing to the maintenance or restoration of this or that pagoda or shrine.

For some reason, we were obliged to check in with the "immigration" authorities before beginning the climb. It took all our efforts to dissuade them from providing us with an armed escort, but after some discussion, we were permitted to begin the climb over the wide, well-worn trail leading up the mountain. 

We joined hundreds -- perhaps even thousands -- of fellow pilgrims who were making the trek. They came in all sizes, shapes, and forms -- grandmothers and grandfathers bent with age, small children barely able to walk, infants carried on the shoulders or backs of their parents, young couples hand in hand, monks and nuns, groups of middle class young men and women who might well have been on a group outing from the office. Many, it appeared, were dressed as if to attend an elegant party, while quite a number, including some women, eschewed the traditional longhi and plastic flip flops for pants and sneakers. For those somewhat less determined, porters were for hire, who packed the supplies for the pilgrimage into huge baskets which they carried on their backs. A few of the infirm were carried up the mountain in lawn chairs lashed to bamboo poles. 

Though there was nothing at all wild about this hike, the trail faced west, and the heat of the afternoon sun was intense. I marvelled at the determination of those old folks making the climb, especially as we climbed a long steep stairway in the full sun. The route to the top was lined almost continuously by the same sorts of commercial establishments as we had seen at the bottom. There were also, beyond the food stands and the blaring loudspeakers, places to rest or even stay overnight, and, quite incongruously, dozens of booths where the local craftsmen manufactureed and sold a wide selection of toy guns, constructed of balsa wood. With the ingenious use of springs and rubbers bands, some of these devices were capable of launching a projectile a considerable distance, or producing a convincing "bang" with every pull of the trigger, and most carried English identifying markings such as "M-16", "AK-47", "Rambo", or "Terminator". Many a pious pilgrim purchased one or more of these facsimile weapons on his or her way to the acquisition of merit at the peak.

There were also, from time to time, soldiers with real machine guns strapped to their back and one who seemed, as best I could guess, to be hauling a grenade launcher up the mountainside. 

The climb itself took about four hours, and we were happy to reach the peak. Despite a persistent haze, the views looking down into the lush green valleys were splendid. But now at the top, we had to see this "miracle." The smooth tiled terrace was crowded with pilgrims. We wove our way through this crowd, and there it was -- its gilded surface glowing softly in the afternoon sun. 

Here at the top of Kyaitio, it was only the men who were permitted the privilege of approaching the holy shrine. The women were provided with a shrine of their own a few feet away where they could wait for the men who proceeded towards the rock. There was a stairway leading down from the flat terrace on the mountain's summit to the promentary on which the rock was perched. Standing at the top of the stairs, I saw men at the bottom of the stairway signaling to me to come closer, so I descended the narrow stairway which led to the base of the rock. Someone gave me a little square of gilt to rub on the rock as an addition to the layer upon layer that had been applied over countless centuries. A man urged me to get down on my hands and knees, and pointed to the sliver of light that showed beneath the rock. This, apparently, was the miracle. I dared not to say what I really was thinking, that the rock appeared to me to sit quite firmly and securely there on the top of the mountain, unlikely to tumble down the mountainside absent an earthquake or a fairly good sized cache of explosives. If there was a miracle here, I thought, it was the fact that so many people would go to so much trouble to visit this spot. 



West Africa 2011:

I left West Africa on a Black Star Lines freighter in 1978, certain I'd be back soon. But it took nearly 34 years to get back to Ouagadougou.


China 2010: An annotated album


Soviet dis-Union, 1989 

Scenes from just before the revolution 
In 1989, I was a semi-accidental witness to history. Reflecting back on what was an amazing four-month sojourn in the Soviet Union, I decided to add an annotated photo album to stories I'd previously published on this site.



Don't Be Afraid 
In what was still known as Leningrad at the time, I found out that people weren't accustomed to feeling like they could say what was on their minds. 


Things falling apart 
The almost unbearable heaviness of being Soviet 

A White Night in Leningrad 
Pondering Russia's future in the midnight glow

Georgian hospitality and the love of Stalin 

Armenia's only shell game operator speaks of his life ambition



Burma, 1992-93:

A Day in Pagan - Burma, 1992

Thousands of pagodas rise from Burma's ancient capital. The people love to talk about their nation's past, but they are not so forthcoming about the present or the future. 


The Dance of the Nat Kadaw - Burma, January, 1993 

On the far side of the Chindwin River, across from a river port called Monywa, an ugly woman dances for the demi-gods


Kyaitio - Burma, January, 1993 

Making a pilgrimage to the golden rock miraculously held in place (ostensibly) by a hair of the Buddha


Cuba 2000

I had to see it before it changed ... 



The Road to Riga 

Amidst smugglers and (perhaps) thieves between Holland and Latvia 

Incongruous Riga

Buffalo News, 1996


On the Road in Albania, 1996

A rough ride


A room with a view? 

Immediately following a perfect beach day - Turkey, 1998 


End of the road 

A different sort of Florida - Cedar Key, 2001 

Ancient (early 80s) history from my hometown:

Niagara's other wonder

Bright lights above the falls



Yes, I do have a job, sort of. Free-lance writing, journalism, editing, translation. If it's English words you're looking for, I can help you out. Click here for more information. It pays the rent.



Katvanger — dubious blues, twisted roots, counterfeit country & western, improbable jazz, and more ...


plus Jim Wake & Sleepwalker (1994-2014) — blues with a twist, rock and roll with a hop and a skip, country and western with tongue in cheek, quasi-tango, pseudo-Caribbean, proto-klezmer, etc.



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